Skeptics are not afraid to take promoters of pseudoscience to task. We are not afraid to direct criticism to those who deserve it or invite it. This is true whether they claim to be psychic, promote a conspiracy theory, or a doctor with a successful television program in a coveted time spot.
Of course, here I’m referring to the estimable Dr. Oz. He has come up on our radar (see here for a good summary) for his uncritical acceptance and promotion of alternative health nonsense. He has even promoted psychics as legitimate people to turn to for therapeutic support for grieving.
Dr. Oz has many critics, one of whom is Dr. Steven Novella, neurologist, one of the hosts of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and prolific blogger. Dr. Oz has evidently been made aware of the criticism against him and decided to face one of his critics on his show.
I was excited to hear that Dr. Novella was invited to speak on the Dr. Oz show this week, though I was concerned that the final cut would treat him and his arguments unfairly. It turns out that it was Dr. Oz who cemented his position in un-reality. The 15 minute segment was a cavalcade of logical fallacy and a repeated appeal to the viewer and their own experience. Even before any information was presented Dr. Oz states that the topic is important because “…it has everything to do with you taking control of your health”. It doesn’t. It has everything to do with science, evidence and plausibility. You can’t simply choose any health treatment you want and have it work by virtue of choice. Your plane doesn’t fly because you wish it to – it does so irrespective of your belief or wish.
Dr. Oz has put his reputation on the line (his words), by advocating alternative therapies of all sorts, this is true. He has also been resoundingly criticised because there is little to no evidence to support the advice he credulously promotes. His audience is large and they deserve the best health information available. You would think that Dr. Oz would be ready and able to confront his critics with the evidence that supports the use of the alternative therapies he promotes. This is not what happened (watch part 1, part 2, and part 3).
I Totally Disagree That Your Doctor is Afraid of Alternative Medicine
Dr. Oz titled the segment “Controversial Medicine: Why Your Doctor is Afraid of Alternative Health.” This doesn’t make any sense, even in the context of how Dr. Oz set it up. He says that many claim that the purported evidence is “junk science” and that there are concerns over safety and then frames this as fear from mainstream medicine. Nonsense. Critical doctors are concerned about safety and efficacy, fear doesn’t enter the equation. Also, he states that some doctors like him are “using alternative therapies in their traditional practices” (emphasis mine). This subtly hints at relativism: one person’s tradition is another person’s alternative. Does Dr. Oz practice medicine in the way he’s trained, because it’s simply traditional or for another reason – i.e. because it’s known to work?
Watching the rest of the segment, I found that Dr. Oz wants Burger King Medicine: one in which the patient can have it their way, with treatment provided by a doctor equipped with an extensive menu of therapies. Dr. Oz wants it his way too.
When discussing natural supplements, Dr. Novella notes that popular products like ginseng and ginkoba biloba have been shown to not work, yet continue to be heavily marketed to people as artificially “alternative”. Dr Oz responds: “I totally disagree that these have not been studied and some evidence been found to support them”. Dr. Oz, I think you forgot your listening ears in make-up and by the way, even if some evidence has been found, you should be basing your judgements on the totality of the evidence.
Don’t worry about that, says Dr. Oz. The real problem is that patients aren’t telling their doctors what they’re using. He does come back briefly to promote a website www.naturalstandard.com that is full of scientific evidence for alternative therapies that he himself uses all the time. Great! I can now carefully review the same evidence that he has seen and has been convinced by. Except that I can’t without paying for access. Thanks Dr. Oz! The founder of the website assures viewers that the quality of the research has increased. This is important but tells us nothing about the results of the research either for or against alternative medicine.
Dr. Oz carries on to the next group of alternative therapies: body manipulations including acupuncture. Here he plays a clip of “your doctor” saying explicitly that the problem with these therapies is that they haven’t been studied well enough. Dr. Oz, you just finished reassuring me that there was lots of scientific evidence. Really, take a break and fetch those listening ears. Dr. Oz wants and needs science to be on his side but when it isn’t (and it very clearly isn’t), he claims that alternative medicine doesn’t fit into a tight box.
That box is reality. Dr. Oz wants to dictate based on his preference alone, whether alternative medicine can be supported by science and when it isn’t it’s an intangible mystery. A mystery indeed! One in which a treatment is shown to not work when studied objectively and cannot ever be shown objectively to work because we’re not looking at it in the right way.
Dr. Oz, you can’t have it your way. You can’t promote whatever you want and have it work too. You need the science to support it before you advise people that they should consider risking time, money and their health. You are simply selling hope, without squaring this with the nature of the responsibility you have chosen for yourself as a doctor and health communicator. It’s not just “do no harm” but also imperatively “do something demonstrably and measurably helpful”. Your attempt to rescue your reputation failed because you didn’t respond directly to the challenges made and you provided no evidence to support any alternative therapy you have promoted. Dr. Oz, you are full of it.
Update: When I first posted I was unaware that the website www.naturalstandard.com was offering free access to the site for Dr. Oz viewers. The login is: drozshow and the password is: viewer. There is no indication of a time limit so it is definitely worth your while to peruse the site while you can!